Delegate Evan Hansen (D-Monongalia)
CHARLESTON – Democratic lawmakers have introduced legislation that would require companies that recently have used PFAS to monitor the discharge of those chemicals into water sources.
Delegate Evan Hansen (D-Monongalia) is the lead sponsor of House Bill 4542, and state Sen. William Ihlenfeld (D-Ohio) is the lead sponsor of Senate Bill 679. Both are known as the Clean Drinking Water Act of 2020.
The bill would create the West Virginia PFAS Action Response Team, which would be modeled after a similar agency in Michigan.
PFAS is a group of chemicals that were used in firefighting foam and consumer products such as non-stick cookware and waterproof clothing. They are called "forever chemicals" because they are found and will remain in the bloodstreams of almost every American, but the exact health effects of exposure are debated. Reports by the EPA and others show there is very little chance of harm to the average person.
As part of a 2005 settlement of a class action in West Virginia, DuPont paid for a panel of experts to conduct a study of the effects of PFAS, which concluded in 2013. That study found statistical correlations between the chemicals and a handful of conditions including testicular cancer and high blood pressure, although correlation doesn’t mean causation and at least one expert has described the science linking PFAS and disease as “really lousy.”
Hansen drafted the original legislation, and Ihlenfeld introduced the identical bill in the Senate.
With his proposal, Hansen said the data collected by the response team would let the state develop standards to keep water sources safe. He also said he isn’t sure of the number of facilities in the state that use PFAS, but he noted that is another reason the bill is important.
“We need to make sure drinking water is safe across the state, but we need to do it in a way that we have proper information before we set up a bunch of regulations,” Hansen told The West Virginia Record. “The bill starts with the response team and with facilities that have used PFAS chemicals.
“These are manmade chemicals that were invented in recent years. As more study is done, several PFAS chemicals have been determined to be toxic even in very small quantities. I think West Virginians expect us to take the necessary steps to make sure their drinking water is clean.”
The bill also would direct the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Resources to propose maximum contaminant levels or treatment techniques for certain PFAS pollutants. And the secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection would propose updates to public water supply health criteria.
"I’ve worked with him (Hansen) on these issues since I got in the Legislature," said Ihlenfeld, the former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia. "We all deserve to have clean drinking water, and there is a history in West Virginia of poison pollutants getting into the water.
"After having seen 'Dark Waters,' it just motivated me that much more to want to do more in West Virginia to make sure something like that doesn’t happen again."
The bills were introduced just months after the release of the film “Dark Waters,” which focused on the release of C8, a perfluorooctanoic acid (or PFAS), into water near DuPont’s Washington Works plant that produces Teflon in Wood County. DuPont executives say a movie doesn’t accurately tell the full story.
"Dark Waters" grossed just over $12 million worldwide. Comparing its treatment of science to the similar "Erin Brockovich," the American Council on Science and Health said "the movie pits a 'heroic' lawyer against a 'greedy' company while throwing scientific facts and nuance under the bus."
A local plaintiff’s attorney who worked on the DuPont C8 litigation with Robert Bilott (the main character in “Dark Waters”) praised lawmakers for introducing the bills.
“I commend the legislators who are working to address threats to clean water in West Virginia,” Harry Deitzler, a partner at Hill Peterson Carper Bee & Deitzler in Charleston, told The Record. “Past problems with the water systems in Charleston and Vienna make it undeniably clear that we must have a viable plan to resolve water contamination issues before local emergencies shut down entire systems.”
Hansen said he thinks “Dark Waters” did bring PFAS into a lot of people’s consciousness, especially those who hadn’t lived through it like the residents of Parkersburg and Wood County. He also noted an incident in Martinsburg in 2016 after PFAS was found in the city water supply, apparently from firefighting foam used at nearby Shepherd Field Air National Guard Base.
“More people are aware of the issue now,” Hansen said. “But even without the movie, it is something that needs to be addressed, and this bill needs to be passed. Other states are moving forward on similar legislation.”
Both Hansen and Ihlenfeld are cautiously optimistic about the bill’s passage.
“It’s hard for any bill to pass through the Legislature the first year it’s introduced,” Hanson said. “But discussions are taking place with people from both parties.”
"It will be a tough battle, but I am cautiously optimistic we can, at least, get it on an agenda in the Senate," he said. "It’s been single referenced to the Senate Judiciary Committee. I think there’s a chance we could have some consideration there ... at least to continue this conversation. We have an opportunity. Until it happens, we just have to wait and see.
"I do think there is some interest from the majority party in doing something with this legislation. It might not be exactly what we introduced, but I hope we can craft something that is worthwhile."